I looked out blissfully, head tilted, into the floods of light onstage that were beaming down on my classmates’ directed glares. As the lights began to dim and the dancers onstage dispersed in a slow walk backward from their collective stare, the words “everybody wants to be loved” flooded through the speakers in Schaeffer Theater, and a ripple of understanding shook my stomach in a way that few dance pieces ever do. It was a moment so visceral that it forced me to acknowledge my most organically human sense of self before walking onstage to perform in the second segment of this piece.
The piece was an excerpt of Sean Dorsey’s The Secret History of Love which had been performed in full on Schaeffer stage just two weeks prior by Company members themselves. My anecdote is just a kernel of the abundant experiences that countless community members in Maine have had and will have surrounding Sean Dorsey’s yearlong collaboration with the Bates Dance Festival.
Laura Faure, director of the festival, met Sean Dorsey four years ago, and she immediately loved his work and identified it as a rare success story of art as a platform for activism. He is a young transgender and queer modern dance artist who has the ability to draw in members from diverse community across generations and the country.
Faure conceived a new project for the festival that involved Dorsey coming to Maine on three occasions and engaging with students of the college both in and out of classes. The first visit was this September, which was initially intended for Dorsey to connect with and get to know the LGBTQ community. The second will be during the 2015 Short Term, and the third will be with his company during the Young Dancers Workshop at the Bates Dance Festival where Sean Dorsey Dance will be the emerging company in residence.
The project then evolved into a larger partnership when the Harward Center for Community Partnerships contributed some funding and the Bates Department of Theater and Dance decided to bring Sean Dorsey as a guest artist for academic classes. Dorsey’s community work has brought him to liberal arts classes in a variety of disciplines, Bates OUTFront meetings in the newly opened OIE space, OUTFront L/A meetings, and the AIDS center in Portland. While he couldn’t spend extensive time in this visit with every group, the goal was to introduce him as a supportive community member so that groups can have more intimate and targeted discussions when he returns during Short Term in May.
In his first of these three visits to Maine in September, Sean Dorsey Dance performed a free showing in Schaeffer Theater of The Secret History of Love. For those who were unable to attend, the piece tells the stories of elders in the LGBTQ community and how they were able to find love throughout the 20th century when, to put it lightly, their identities were not as well accepted as they are today. The piece is the product of Dorsey’s extensive creative process involving one-on-one interviews with LGBTQ elders, building a score from those recorded narratives, and creating movement that would capture, explain but not wash out the potency of the recordings.
What makes Sean’s educational and affecting work so unique is that it assures audiences that modern dance can be a platform for activism without impeding the work’s ability to stand on its own. The poignancy of the piece doesn’t rely solely on content or movement, but rather the harmonious integration of the two so that each enhance the effectiveness of the other to draw us in, and help us think. When we leave the performance, we don’t feel guilty for not having known the history of the unfairly oppressed, we feel humbled by their determination to find love and thankful that we have become aware of this example of human resilience.
Sean’s wide range of responsibilities as researcher, composer and choreographer for Secret History of Love will be repeated in the creative process for his upcoming work The Missing Generation, which will premiere at the Bates Dance Festival in the upcoming 2015 season, when Sean Dorsey Dance will be the emerging company in residence.
The Missing Generation, not to be confused with the phrase “the lost generation,” is Dorsey’s next full length work, and it will examine the loss of almost an entire generation of gay and transgender people to AIDS during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, as well as the contemporary impact of this loss. Dorsey has already recorded oral histories from survivors in five cities and plans to spend the next year travelling across the country to record more.
This new piece developed out of his research for Secret History when he realized that there was an entire generation of community members that he couldn’t interview about their experiences of finding love because they had lost their lives in the early part of the AIDS epidemic.
While the subject matter is dauntingly dark, the community members he already met to talk about their experiences, some of them from Maine, have been “phenomenal, remarkable, amazing, super, powerful, brilliant, curious, dynamic, insightful, hilarious, saucy, playful,” in Dorsey’s words.
I’m convinced that the effectiveness of his work as a platform for activism is due to the fact that Dorsey himself is a positive person. Reflecting on the dark content in The Missing Generation, he noted, “It’s also important to capture that people made incredibly vibrant art in response to AIDS and were powerful, they did amazing street art and street protests.” He is the best version of a self-proclaimed history buff, because while he’s intrigued by past events, he only looks positively towards the future.
“I’m excited to push myself as an artist because it’s the largest project that I’ve ever undertaken,” he says of his upcoming work, and “I’m excited about the disparate communities that the project is bringing together. I’m very thrilled and grateful for Bates Dance Festival and Laura Faure for being one of the lead national commissioners of the project, for being so supportive of the work, and for bringing us to Maine to work with many cities and towns here to reach transgender and queer people throughout Maine.”